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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 81. Prominent Features of Evangelical Worship.


Taking a wider view of the subject, we may emphasize the following characteristic features of evangelical worship, as compared with that of the Latin and Greek churches:

1. The prominence given to the sermon, or the exposition and application of the word of God. It became the chief part of divine service, and as regards importance took the place of the mass. Preaching was the special function of the bishops, but sadly neglected by them, and is even now in Roman-Catholic countries usually confined to the season of Lent. The Roman worship is complete without a sermon. The mass, moreover, is performed in a dead language, and the people are passive spectators rather than hearers. The altar is the throne of the Catholic priest; the pulpit is the throne of the Protestant preacher and pastor. The Reformers in theory and practice laid the greatest stress on preaching and hearing the gospel as an act of worship.

Luther set the example, and was a most indefatigable and popular preacher.626626    His sermons fill 16 vols. in the Erl. ed. of his Works. He filled the pulpit of the town church alternately with Bugenhagen, the pastor, on Sundays and week-days, sometimes twice a day. Even in the last days of his life he delivered four sermons from the pulpit at Eisleben in spite of physical infirmity and pain.627627    They were taken down in short-hand, and first published by his companion Aurifaber. In the Erl. ed., XVI. 209 sqq. His most popular sermons are those on the Gospels and Epistles of the year, collected in the Kirchenpostille, which he completed in 1525 and 1527. Another popular collection is his Hauspostille, which contains his sermons at home, as taken down by Veit Dietrich and Rörer, and published in 1544 and 1559. He preached without notes, after meditation, under the inspiration of the moment.

He was a Boanerges, the like of whom Germany never heard before or since. He had all the elements of a popular orator. Melanchthon said, "One is an interpreter, one a logician, another an orator, but Luther is all in all." Bossuet gives him credit for "a lively and impetuous eloquence by which he delighted and captivated his hearers." Luther observed no strict method. He usually followed the text, and combined exposition with application. He made Christ and the gospel his theme. He lived and moved in the Bible, and understood how to make it a book of life for his time. He always spoke from intense conviction and with an air of authority. He had an extraordinary faculty of expressing the profoundest thoughts in the clearest and strongest language for the common people. He hit the nail on the head. He was bold and brave, and spared neither the Devil nor the Pope nor the Sacramentarians. His polemical excursions, how-ever, are not always in good taste, nor in the right spirit.

He disregarded the scholars among his hearers, and aimed at the common people, the women and children and servants. "Cursed be the preachers," he said, "who in church aim at high or hard things." He was never dull or tedious. He usually stopped when the hearers were at the height of attention, and left them anxious to come again. He censured Bugenhagen for his long sermons, of which people so often and justly complain. He summed up his homiletical wisdom in three rules: —


"Start fresh; Speak out; Stop short."628628    "Tritt frisch auf; Mach’s Maul auf; Hör’ bald auf." Literally: Get up freshly; Open your mouth widely; Be done quickly. Comp. E. Jonas, Die Kanzelberedtsamkeit Luthers, Berlin, 1852; Beste, Die bedeutendsten Kanzelredner der älteren luth. Kirche, 1856 (pp. 30-36); G. Garnier, Sur la predication de Luther, Montauban, 1876; Thomas S. Hastings, Luther as a Preacher, In the "Luther Symposiac" by the Professors of the Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1883.


The mass and the sermon are the chief means of edification,—the one in the Greek and Roman, the other in the Protestant churches. The mass memorializes symbolically, day by day, the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world; the sermon holds up the living Christ of the gospel as an inspiration to holy living and dying. Both may degenerate into perfunctory, mechanical services; but Christianity has outlived all dead masses and dry sermons, and makes its power felt even through the weakest instrumentalities.

As preaching is an intellectual and spiritual effort, it calls for a much higher education than the reading of the mass from a book. A comparison of the Protestant with the Roman or Greek clergy at once shows the difference.

2. In close connection with preaching is the stress laid on catechetical instruction. Of this we shall speak in a special section.

3. The Lord’s Supper was restored to its primitive character as a commemoration of the atoning death of Christ, and a communion of believers with Him. In the Protestant system the holy communion is a sacrament, and requires the presence of the congregation; in the Roman system it is chiefly a sacrifice, and may be performed by the priest alone. The withdrawal of the cup is characteristic of the over-estimate of the clergy and under-estimate of the laity; and its restoration was not only in accordance with primitive usage, but required by the doctrine of the general priesthood of believers.

Luther retained the weekly communion as the conclusion of the regular service on the Lord’s Day. In the Reformed churches it was made less frequent, but more solemn.

4. The divine service was popularized by substituting the vernacular for the Latin language in prayer and song,—a change of incalculable consequence.

5. The number of church festivals was greatly reduced, and confined to those which commemorate the great facts of our salvation; namely, the incarnation (Christmas), the redemption (Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter), and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Ascension and Pentecost), with the concluding festival of the Holy Trinity. They constitute the nucleus of the Christian year, and a sort of chronological creed for the people. The Lutheran Church retained also (at least in some sections) the feasts of the Virgin Mary, of the Apostles and Evangelists, and of All Saints; but they have gradually gone out of use.

Luther held that church festivals, and even the weekly sabbath, were abolished in principle, and observed only on account of the requirements of public worship and the weakness of the laity.629629    "Propter necessitatem Verbi Dei" and "propter infirmos." The righteous need no laws and ceremonies. To them all time is holy, every day a day of rest, and every day a day of good work. But "although," he says, "all days are free and alike, it is yet useful and good, yea, necessary, to keep holy one day, whether it be sabbath or Sunday or any other day; for God will govern the world orderly and peacefully; hence he gave six days for work, and the seventh for rest, that men should refresh themselves by rest, and hear the word of God."630630    On Luther’s views of Sunday, see his explanation of the third (fourth) commandment in his catechisms, and Köstlin, Luthers Theologie, II. 82 sqq.

In this view all the Reformers substantially agree, including Calvin and Knox, except that the latter made practically less account of the annual festivals, and more of the weekly festival. The Anglo-American theory of the Lord’s Day, which is based on the perpetual essential obligation of the Fourth Commandment, as a part of the moral law to be observed with Christian freedom in the light of Christ’s resurrection, is of Puritan origin at the close of the sixteenth century, and was first symbolically sanctioned by the Westminster standards in 1647, but has worked itself into the flesh and blood of all English-speaking Christendom to the great benefit of public worship and private devotion.631631    On the history of Sunday observance, see Hessey, Sunday; its Origin, History, etc. (Oxford, 1860); Gilfillan, The Sabbath (Edinb. 1861); and the author’s essay on the Christian Sabbath in "Christ and Christianity" (New York and London, 1885, pp. 213-291).



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